Jared Wickerham - Getty Images
The Patriots defense is worst in the league in giving up plays of 20+ yards. Is the solution already on the roster?
Devin McCourty didn't turn his head.
Kyle Arrington bit hard on the play-action.
Sterling Moore was turned around multiple times.
Pat Chung didn't help over the top.
Tavon Wilson took terrible angles.
I never said it was a good show.
In general, the Patriots tried to keep the Broncos receivers in front of them and Manning was all too glad to check-down to his tight end and running backs in the flat, going 21/25 for 149 yards and 2 TDs on passes of under 10 yards. Whenever the Broncos moved the ball, it was because the Patriots were leaving the sides of the field open and the linebackers weren't closing in on the outlet receivers.
Under 10 Yards
TE Jacob Tamme - 6/7, 50 yards (34 YAC)
RB Willis McGahee - 5/6, 51 yards (39 YAC)
TE Joel Dreessen - 4/4, 21 yards (9 YAC), 1 TD
RB Ronnie Hillman - 1/1, 4 yards (8 YAC)
Total: 16/18, 126 yards (90 YAC), 1 TD
Instead of shadowing the players slightly to the outside to be in a position for a quick tackle, the linebackers stayed in the middle of the field to prevent big plays up the seam- not to spy on the scrambling Manning. Manning was all too happy to chip away down the field, bit by bit, yard by yard, to try and create scoring opportunities.
In fact, the only times the Broncos drives stalled? Turnovers (duh), ineffective running, and incompletions on deep throws. Every non-turnover/TD drive had an ineffective run (thrice), or a failed deep attempt (once) on the final set of downs.
So how important is a good deep ball defense? Well, the Broncos completed eight (8) passing plays of 15+ yards (and +1 from PI). That's a terrible place to start.
And how were they able to complete these passes so frequently? That's on the defense.
Step 1) The Patriots were willing to let the tight ends and running backs catch the ball in the flat as the defensive backs played deeper to prevent the big plays. Manning was all too willing to take the short yardage plays.
Step 2) Eventually, after the Broncos picked up play after play of short yardage, the Patriots safeties stopped watching the over-the-top passes and focused too much on the outlet receivers.
Manning was able to make it rain down the field as Demaryius Thomas was able to consistently generate steps between himself and Moore (and a couple times against McCourty). Eric Decker wasn't able to get the same distance, but he was able to adjust and use his size to make his own plays.
The results were not pretty. The Patriots are now in sole possession of "worst big play defense" with a league leading (...bottoming? Worst. Yeah. Worst.) 27 plays of 20+ yards allowed- all of them through the air. They're also tied at the bottom with 7 touchdowns allowed on such plays.
Is it easy to blame certain players? Sure. Moore does not look fluid when turning his hips to run down the field. Chung has left the RCB hung out to dry on numerous occasions due to bad angles and not being in the right position. Wilson has taken some poor angles, undercutting the route and exposing the deep zone. McCourty has his own issues with turning his head as he tries to defend the player's reactions instead of the ball. Arrington has a mortifying 158.0 Quarterback Rating Against. Ras-I Dowling has apparently not performed well enough to earn a larger role.
No one is absolved from fault or blame in this situation. Every single player needs to start working together to yield better results.
Then again, there was that rookie seventh round pick with second round talent from Nebraska. The Fonz. Alfonzo. Fonzie Dennard. He looked pretty good.
He allowed zero completions in the five attempts against, with two passes defended. He looked stout and willing to pitch in with the run defense. He showed fluidity when running with Decker up the sideline on two consecutive plays. Perhaps most importantly, he didn't look lost and acted like he knew his role on the defense.
If Dennard can continue to grow, there's a chance that this secondary can turn around more quickly than anticipated. It would keep Arrington at the star position (in the slot) and away from the outside. It would allow Chung to be a more impactful player as Dennard sticking more closely to the receiver than Moore would let Chung be a greater force in the box. It might even force quarterbacks to force more bad decisions in the direction of McCourty so he can take advantage and force some turnovers.
(note: Teams don't have to throw chance balls to McCourty since they can make plays against the RCB. If quarterbacks aren't able to consistently make plays happen against the RCB as they are able to now, then they might resort to tossing some bad throws in McCourty's direction. Makes sense in my mind.)
Of course this is all based on one game. Dennard showed a spark that will most likely earn him additional playing time against the Seahawks; it's very possible he could regress and start giving up plays. That's something to evaluate next week.
For now, let's look at how he performed against the Broncos in this week's Film Breakdown.
Let's look at the personnel on the field:
Broncos feature Eric Decker at LWR (far side), Brandon Stokely in the slot, and Demaryius Thomas at RWR. Joel Dreessen is at tight end and Willis McGahee is the running back.
The Patriots feature:
CB: Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington (slot), Alfonzo Dennard
S: Tavon Wilson, Pat Chung
Look a little messy? Orange is the Broncos route, green is the Patriots defense. Arrow is pointing to Pat Chung.
The Broncos are sending Decker, Dreessen, and Thomas down the field, while Stokely is sitting in the Patriots zone defense. McGahee is the outlet to the outside.
Brilliant move by Ninkovich reading the outlet and peeling off from the pass rush to cover McGahee and force Manning to take a shot down the field.
McCourty and Dennard are in man, while Mayo, Spikes, and Arrington are playing zone. Wilson is playing safety help over Demaruyius Thomas, while Chung is probably the safety help over the top of Decker since there's no way the Patriots would let an unproven rookie defend one of Manning's most reliable targets one-on-one.
Oh wait, no, unless Chung is leaving Dennard out to dry (wouldn't be surprised as Dreessen is still currently in Mayo's zone even though Mayo is looking outside [purple line]), that's exactly what's happening.
Arrington takes away a potential Demaryius hitch and allows McCourty to focus on playing over the top with his eyes facing the quarterback. Wilson provides help in the middle of the field to prevent Demaryius from cutting free.
Spikes is sitting on Stokely.
This whole play, Manning does not take his eyes away from Dennard and Decker. It seems that Chung stepping forward to engage the tight end to deter a quick throw up the seam open up the deep ball opportunity for the Broncos.
Dennard has done a great job moving the down the field, turning his hips without losing a step in order to face Decker and watch his body movements.
Also note the Broncos offensive line blocking to the right to open a highway sized lane for Manning to throw.
The play is drawn out and looks more pronounced. Manning throws the ball and Wilson sees where it's going and books it across the field as there is no safety help over the top (looking at you, Chung).
Arrington's zone position is key as it prevents three things:
1) McGahee from turning up the field into the open space
2) Stokely from turning outside and becoming an outlet
3) Thomas from adjusting to a hitch as McCourty plays away over the top
Most importantly, though, is Dennard's gamesmanship at corner. Look at the funnel he creates with the sideline. He's running step-for-step with Decker, while squeezing him to the sideline and removing all potential space for adjustments to the ball. That's football savvy.
And here's the play coming to a close. You can see Chung (arrow'd) and Wilson (red arrow'd) in the shot, but in reality the Patriots, by plan or not, had Dennard on an island in a crucial moment at the end of the game against Peyton Manning.
Look how he's noticed Decker changing his body to lay out for a pass. And see how he's swung his head to look for the incoming football.
That's a big time play and that's the type of big time defense the Patriots need on the field.
Is Dennard the answer? There's still plenty of questions to formulate before determining if he's the solution. But for now, he looks like the Fonz could be the best option on the outside opposite of McCourty.